Juwan Rice wants diners to think of Rated Test Kitchen as less of a restaurant and more of an intimate dinner party.
The fine-dining concept, which the 21-year-old chef opened in Downtown St. Louis in the first week of September, is open only by reservation just a few nights a week, with a menu that gets completely overhauled each month. The seven-course menu isn’t easy to pinpoint into one cuisine or even style of cooking; instead, it’s dictated by the seasons and the ingredients available from local farmers and producers. On a given night, it might weave in influences from Asian, South American, and West African cuisines.
“For us, as culinary creatives and chefs, we get to have fun, we get to be innovative, we get to be witty and we get to do pretty much whatever we want,” Rice says. “This is not a traditional restaurant where you come in and get a steak and that’s it. We want to change the realm where St. Louis is influencing the east and west coasts versus them influencing us. We wanted to flip that trajectory and be the headliners and trailblazers for the culinary industry.”
Rated also sets itself apart from other restaurants by encouraging a more intimate, one-on-one connection between chefs and guests. As the name might imply, guests are not just invited but encouraged to share their feedback on each dish directly with Rice and his team. Guest feedback is stored through Rated’s reservation software so that the restaurant can see notes immediately and make changes for future menus.
Rice was inspired to make guest feedback a focal point of his new concept when he received a lengthy negative review on Yelp after serving a crowd of nearly 40,000 people at Winterfest in Kiener Plaza a few years ago. He says inviting guests to provide their feedback in the moment allows for a more collaborative relationship between the farmers, chefs, and guests.
“I think it builds a sense of trust and relationship,” he says. “You can’t go to Ruth’s Chris and talk directly to the chef, but we have that experience here. Guests are able to talk directly to us. Most of the time, we’re serving the guests directly so they’re able to give us their feedback right then and there if they don’t want to go through the rating process. We love to create that communication when we’re serving our guests.”
Rice, who started cooking with his grandmother at just 6 years old and launched his first culinary business, JR’s Gourmet, at 14, has always known that he wanted to open a restaurant someday. After graduating from the culinary arts program at South Tech High School in Sunset Hills and competing in culinary competitions throughout the Midwest, he landed the position of executive pastry chef at Bait, a popular seafood restaurant that shuttered earlier this year. He then assumed the executive chef role until the global health crisis in 2020, when he launched Feeding the Frontline to feed local healthcare workers. But as he gained experience working in local restaurants and country clubs and consulting for other concepts, he realized the traditional restaurant format just wouldn’t cut it for him.
Traveling across the country consulting with restaurants that were suffering in the wake of the 2020 shutdown helped him begin to visualize a new model.
“I got to really see why restaurants were failing, and from there, I was able to implement it into my own business to create a format that was a little bit unique,” he says. “One of the things that I saw was that restaurants were failing due to staffing costs and food costs. With Rated, we set it up to where it’s reservation-only, so we are able to get an exact number of how much food to order, how much liquor to order, how many staff we need for the night. It’s a little bit more of a controlled environment, whereas during (the global health crisis) a lot of restaurants experienced one night where they may have five guests and the next night they could have 500 guests. We really don’t experience that with our concept because of the way we’ve structured it.”
Rice, who often jokes that he studied at “YouTube University” rather than a traditional culinary school, credits social media with exposing him to innovative ideas and techniques. At Rated, he implements elements of molecular gastronomy to add a playful vibe to the menu.
“With the power of social media, we’re able to collaborate and take influence from people across the globe,” he says. “I kind of traveled through social media, in a sense, to find new and innovative things that are happening in the world, and we’re pulling some of those techniques from those chefs. I love to play with food, and I want our guests to experience that as well.”
Take the first course on Rated’s opening menu, for instance: herba salata with arugula microgreens, radicchio, Belgian endive, orange supremes, and a spherified raspberry vinaigrette.
“When I say spherified, I mean it’s kind of like an egg yolk,” Rice says. “The liquid is in the middle and there’s a thin barrier on the outside that keeps it in this yolk shape. Guests get to burst these bubbles of vinaigrette as they’re eating their salad, which is super interactive and fun to get them going.”
The second course on the opening menu, which Rice describes as a molecular flatbread, featured a “clear” piece of bread topped with torched salted Wagyu beef, aged Pecorino cheese, a drizzle of herb oil, and a few dollops of wasabi aioli.
“We mix kuzu (powder), potato starch, and rice flour together,” Rice says. “We cook it, we bake it, and then it creates this clear outer shell that looks like a piece of bread and it gets the Maillard reaction, so it tastes like it’s been torched or grilled. It’s just really a fun and innovative way for guests to experience traditional flavors in an untraditional way.”
Rated, which recently debuted weekend brunch service, will eventually offer an additional dinner seating as well as café service in partnership with longtime collaborators Jay “Sweets” Perry and Bri “Delights” Rubin of De’Lish Emporium.
That Rated can seamlessly transition from serving brunch to grab-and-go pastries to a fine-dining tasting menu is not just a credit to Rice’s cooking, but also his ambition to make the restaurant a destination in Downtown St. Louis. His investment in the neighborhood is evident upon stepping into the space, at once bright and airy by day, with gleaming white subway tile and gold accents throughout, and intimate and moody by night.
Rice also envisions Rated as a collaborative space, and in January, will begin opening it up to other chefs from across the country, including a New Orleans-based chef who will offer a seven-course menu with tastes of the city.
Some chefs might just stay for one seating while others stay for a full month, but Rice hopes they’ll all be able to use the platform to test out new ideas and expose St. Louis diners to interesting flavors and techniques. Rice hopes the unique concept will bring more people to Downtown St. Louis and also make fine dining more accessible to communities that have historically been shut out.
“For the most part when it comes to fine dining, the traditional executive chef is a French-trained, Caucasian male that’s a little bit older — that’s just what you see when you go in any country club or fine-dining establishment or hotel casino,” he says. “Typically, African Americans in the kitchen are dishwashers or busboys or prep cooks or just something that’s not a higher position. I want to make it an even playing field and allow chefs of different descents to be able to shine. They don’t typically review soul food as fine dining, but why not? Why can’t there be a fine dining element to it? I don’t believe that French food should be the only fine-dining cuisine. There’s amazing Asian street food restaurants and Cuban restaurants that I’ve been to that have fine-dining elements to them. There’s just so many different cultural diversities that can be fine dining, which I really think more people need to tap into.”
Rice is also excited to add to St. Louis’ burgeoning culinary scene, which he says sets itself apart from other cities with its tight-knit, supportive nature. At restaurants he’s worked at and consulted for across St. Louis, he’s built relationships with staff at neighboring spots, whether when chatting about food while cooking family meal for the kitchen or borrowing staff members on a busy night.
“I’ve always seen a sense of community in the restaurant scene in St. Louis,” he says. “I think St. Louis being so supportive is great for new restaurateurs. There’s a really cool network that we can kind of lean on each other for advice if we want. I think it’s really unique to St. Louis, because we don’t really see it as a sense of competition, which is great here, because when you go to bigger cities, it’s all competition — everyone’s competing to be the next best restaurant or have the most reservations. Here, you can put a restaurant across from another restaurant and not have any (of those) issues.”
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